Rolling Meadows High greenhouse serves families in need

As a pandemic that struck quickly, erased jobs and created financial crises for many suburban families continues into a new year, High School District 214 continues to join others to assist those in need.

At Rolling Meadows High School, that means continuing to utilize a greenhouse that had become a focal point for the school's groundbreaking agriculture program before COVID-19 closed all Illinois schools last March.

The school continues to conduct an once-a-week school meal bag pickup. On Dec. 17, for example, the high school's food service staff distributed more than 50 bags of basil and about 50 bags of lettuce to local families. Tomatoes from the greenhouse are now being added to the mix.

This effort found its roots shortly after the pandemic began in March, temporarily idling the Rolling Meadows High School greenhouse. Before long, Rolling Meadows Principal Eileen Hart and colleagues answered her question "We've got this greenhouse resource that's not being used; could we turn it to be of good use?" with an emphatic yes.

Working with Dave Wietrzak, Rolling Meadows High School's division head for career and technical education, who had played a key role in launching the greenhouse, Hart found a way to convert the idled greenhouse into a community outreach.

"Back when I started the AG program," Hart said, "a big thing for me was that it be a part of our community outreach."

Hart's own commitment to community partnership includes monthly meetings with Rolling Meadows Partners, a group that includes Dr. Natalia Nieves, a social services outreach specialist for the city's police department.

From these conversations emerged a plan to utilize the school's greenhouse to grow items - tomato plants and red/green peppers - that could be distributed to community members who would continue to grow the plants indoors, as nighttime temperatures were too cool to accommodate outdoor growth.

From there, the project took off. District 214 Education Foundation Executive Director Erin Holmes created a donation opportunity to make the effort's costs neutral, working with Home Depot to secure necessary supplies at no cost to the school or district. Through this initial effort, Hart and Wietrzak provided about 200 tomato plants, which Hart and Wietrzak turned over to Nieves for her distribution to local families.

"The families were incredibly grateful and excited to have received plants and flowers," Nieves said. "So many families were touched by the offer of a plant to take care of and eventually benefit from its fruit. It was a very unique and beautiful way to offer hope in this terribly difficult time."

In addition to that project with Rolling Meadows Partners, Hart and the school's food service staff conduct weekly drive-by pickups aimed at providing healthy foods for families.

In more normal times, when not pressed into service to help feed a community during a pandemic, the greenhouse and Rolling Meadows' agriculture pathway offers students an array of career opportunities often overlooked in the suburbs, including veterinary science, agricultural engineering, food science and more.

Agricultural, Food and Natural Resources is one of 16 nationally recognized career clusters. Within this cluster, District 214 has established four career pathways, each of which consists of a multiyear program of academic and technical study that prepares students for a full range of postsecondary options. These pathways are:

• Environmental Science Systems, preparing students for such careers as occupational health, safety specialist or environmental engineering technician or others.

• Food Products and Processing Systems, aligning students for such careers as food science technician or farm or ranch manager.

• Plant and Animal Systems, laying the foundation for such careers as veterinarian or vet tech or animal breeder.

• Power, Structural and Technical Systems, setting the stage for such careers as agricultural engineer or heavy equipment mechanic.

"Agriculture is not common in suburbs," Hart says, "and yet it offers so many career options."

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